I went to see Botero’s Abu Ghraib pictures last week at the Doe Library in Berkeley. I spent a long time there but still emerged somewhat confused in my feelings about the work. It’s taken until now to figure it out. We’ve reproduced one of the drawings below.
The Berkeley campus is beautiful with trees and elegant Beaux Arts university buildings. You go up the impressive steps of the library and on your right is a large room filled with computers with strong fluorescent lighting. The computers are empty and the walls are lined with these paintings and drawings. The paintings are large; I found their vivid flat colors with stylized blood droplets and swathes of bleeding overwhelming. Not hard to look at but rather difficult to take in. My usual first intense internal reaction to good art, regardless of subject matter, is joyful, usually followed by more complex ideas and emotions. These pictures shut that joyful intensity down hard.
I looked at the pictures for a long time, then went out into the beautiful campus and sunshine and sat for a while, and went looked at them again. Then I went out and in again. (Debbie notes: I did the same thing, though only once.)
I ended up thinking that the work was remarkable and that it was really good art and some of it was probably great art but I was still confused by my responses.
Eventually I realized something that under other more intellectual circumstances might have been obvious.
Images of torture in a human context (no saints – no glory in the sky) is (like images of sex in a way) so powerful for the viewer that it’s difficult to respond except to the acts portrayed.
This makes it extraordinarily hard to do good art about torture. I’ve seen a fair number of images about Abu Ghraib. They’ve all been stylized reportage, not good art. I’ve also seen Zurbaran’s painting of St. Agatha with her breasts on a tray but because that’s religious art, it’s really about martyrdom and glory. Goya’s war drawings now have the distancing of time. Abu Ghraib is now.
Botero’s ability to make good art while expressing the horrors of the torture confounded and amazed me.
Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings will be exhibited at the Doe Library, located at the University of California, Berkeley, through March 25th. Jack Rasmussen, the Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., announced on his web log that Botero’s paintings will be exhibited at the American University Museum from November 6th to December 30th, 2007.